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Salt Lake City man to spend year in jail for girlfriend’s death

‘It is not clear to me that Mr. Parry fully recognizes the pain and harm he has caused,’ judge says

Nathan Edwin Parry appears in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of Rebecca Sullivan in October.
Nathan Edwin Parry appears in 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of Rebecca Sullivan in October.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Salt Lake City man who pleaded guilty in the 2018 death of his girlfriend has been ordered to a year in jail, capping off an investigation riddled with problems that played a role in helping him to avoid prison time.

A shackled Nathan Parry hung his head as Rebecca “Bec” Sullivan’s family members recalled her as a world traveler with a magnetic personality. They said she drew inspiration from the outdoors, loved spending time with her nieces and nephews, and forged a strong connection with fellow musicians in Salt Lake City.

“She deserved the best. She received the worst,” her sister Rachel Sullivan said through tears.

Sullivan’s siblings and parents rejected Parry’s claim that the two had decided to kill themselves by hanging at his apartment before he grabbed scissors with his feet and cut them down late on Oct. 20, 2018. Sullivan died the following morning at University Hospital.

A spry 41 years old, Sullivan had just begun training to become a yoga teacher and was pursuing a license to teach French to high schoolers, her family said Thursday. They wept as a song she had performed with a fiddle player was played aloud in court.

“To imply that Rebecca would have considered even for a minute taking her own life is absurd,” her mother Kathy Sullivan said. “It didn’t happen that way.”

Parry, 35, admitted in December to a reduced charge of manslaughter, a second-degree felony, as part of a plea agreement that prosecutors acknowledged is “remarkable.” He was originally charged with murder, a first-degree felony.

Sullivan’s family has said they hadn’t initially suspected violence in Parry and Sullivan’s relationship, but later came to question if that were true.

The night of her death, Rebecca Sullivan had gone to a restaurant and brewery with a friend, confiding in him that she wanted to end the relationship before she returned to Parry’s home, court papers say. When drunk, Parry often antagonized those around him, including at a birthday party in the hours before Sullivan’s death.

Later that night, a panicked and intoxicated Parry initially told police Sullivan had died during “aggressive sex,” but later admitted that wasn’t true and claimed they had tried to kill themselves by hanging before he managed to grab scissors with his foot and cut them down, gave her CPR and called 911, court documents say.

It’s an explanation Parry’s defense team says is supported by a finding from the state’s former medical examiner, Todd Gray, who reviewed the autopsy. He found there were “a number of findings that support Mr. Parry’s claim of a mutual, shared hanging event,” including the upward angle of ligature marks on Sullivan’s neck.

On Thursday, 3rd District Judge Todd Shaughnessy honored the one-year jail sentence in Parry’s plea agreement, ordering that the jail time be followed by five years of probation. He called Parry “an angry drunk” and ordered him not to drink or do drugs, saying the problem will catch up to him if he doesn’t address it.

“It is not clear to me that Mr. Parry fully recognizes the pain and harm he has caused. Frankly, I don’t know if he ever will,” Shaughnessy said.

Parry declined to speak before he was sentenced, although his attorney Maren Larson said he plans to continue helping other inmates at the Salt Lake County Jail get their GEDs.

Prosecutor Colleen Magee fought emotion as she told the judge she strongly believes Parry killed Sullivan.

“This is not the justice we wanted for Rebecca,” she said.

Magee declined to talk about details of the police investigation, noting Parry has about a month to seek an appeal. But his defense attorney in a sentencing memo detailed several problems in court papers, saying officers did not preserve the crime scene and may have tracked blood and vomit through Parry’s home while walking around.

“While detectives indicated their suspicion that Rebecca’s passing was the result of ‘possible erotic asphyxiation,’ their failure to search the scene and preserve evidence is inexcusable,” Larson wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Salt Lake police declined comment through detective Michael Ruff, who said the case was now in the hands of prosecutors.

Officers had initially reported Parry’s statement about the hanging was not consistent with the length of red nylon webbing found at the scene. But as the court case progressed, police later discovered the original measurement was inaccurate. Instead of about 28 inches, the material had two sections spanning 48 inches.

Among the problems with the case are a police log that fails to account for more than four hours of investigation and clothes later discovered to have blood on them that officers handed to Parry as he stood outside in his underwear, Larson noted in court filings.

Salt Lake police also failed to collect the couple’s letters and journals that might shed light on their state of mind that night, the court filing says, evidence that now could be challenged as tainted after Sullivan’s family collected it.

Further complicating the case, Parry’s intoxication could be a defense, and a 2018 Utah law that criminalizes helping a person in a suicide has not yet been reviewed by Utah’s appeals courts, Larson noted.